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In Vivo. 2004 May-Jun;18(3):245-67.

Nitric oxide and cellular stress response in brain aging and neurodegenerative disorders: the role of vitagenes.

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  • 1Section of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Medicine, University of Catania, Catania, Italy.


Nitric oxide and other reactive nitrogen species appear to play crucial roles in the brain such as neuromodulation, neurotransmission and synaptic plasticity, but are also involved in pathological processes such as neurodegeneration and neuroinflammation. Acute and chronic inflammation result in increased nitrogen monoxide formation and nitrosative stress. It is now well documented that NO and its toxic metabolite, peroxynitrite, can inhibit components of the mitochondrial respiratory chain leading to cellular energy deficiency and, eventually, to cell death. Within the brain, the susceptibility of different brain cell types to NO and peroxynitrite exposure may be dependent on factors such as the intracellular reduced glutathione and cellular stress resistance signal pathways. Thus neurons, in contrast to astrocytes, appear particularly vulnerable to the effect of nitrosative stress. Evidence is now available to support this scenario for neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and Huntington's disease, but also in the brain damage following ischemia and reperfusion, Down's syndrome and mitochondrial encephalopathies. To survive different types of injuries, brain cells have evolved integrated responses, the so-called longevity assurance processes, composed of several genes termed vitagenes and including, among others, members of the HSP system, such as HSP70 and HSP32, to detect and control diverse forms of stress. In particular, HSP32, also known as heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1), has received considerable attention, as it has been recently demonstrated that HO-1 induction, by generating the vasoactive molecule carbon monoxide and the potent antioxidant bilirubin, could represent a protective system potentially active against brain oxidative injury. Increasing evidence suggests that the HO-1 gene is redox-regulated and its expression appears closely related to conditions of oxidative and nitrosative stress. An amount of experimental evidence indicates that increased rate of free radical generation and decreased efficiency of the reparative/degradative mechanisms, such as proteolysis, are factors that primarily contribute to age-related elevation in the level of oxidative stress and brain damage. Given the broad cytoprotective properties of the heat shock response there is now strong interest in discovering and developing pharmacological agents capable of inducing such a response. These findings have led to new perspectives in medicine and pharmacology, as molecules inducing this defense mechanism appear to be possible candidates for novel, cytoprotective strategies. Particularly, manipulation of endogenous cellular defense mechanisms such as the heat shock response, through nutritional antioxidants or pharmacological compounds, represents an innovative approach to therapeutic intervention in diseases causing tissue damage, such as neurodegeneration. Consistent with this notion, maintenance or recovery of the activity of vitagenes may possibly delay the aging process and decrease the occurrence of age-related diseases with resulting prolongation of a healthy life span.

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